Dr. Michele Morgan says it’s fitting that her product, The MaxBit, appeared this month on The Today Show as a product offered under the Hammacher Schlemmer banner.
After all, the 172-year-old catalog company gave The Maxbit its first “win” back in 2004.
“When all I had was the prototype, and I was working with Innovate Mississippi to get a manufacturer, an employee at Innovate saw that Hammacher Schlemmer was doing an inventor’s contest and suggested I enter,” Dr. Morgan said. “Over 300 entered, and I was one of the 20 they selected.”
Dr. Morgan flew to Chicago, got set up in the contest area, contending with judges and local TV cameras for the annual contest. She didn’t even have a name yet for her “powered garden tool.” The Maxbit, as she later branded her device, went on to win fourth place in the contest that awarded four places.
For Dr. Morgan and her startup, it was validation.
“Here we are full circle, where they now sell our product; we’ve shipped hundreds and hundreds to that same company,” she says of Hammacher Schlemmer, one of major retailers of The MaxBit.
The MaxBit is a device you attach to a standard drill to dig a perfect 4-inch hole (or 6-inch, with the larger model) for planting in your garden. The simple idea that Dr. Morgan had in 2004 has turned into her entire career, partly because she was willing to persevere and learn to do a lot of the work herself.
“When I launched, what I thought would happen is that a company would license the product, they’d have an in-house marketer, and I’d hand it over and agree on a royalty,” Dr. Morgan said. In reality, she’s managed the prototype, product design, patent, manufacturing, marketing, sales, distribution, and shipping herself, learning a ton in the process.
“I had no idea how to pack a pallet before this,” she laughed.
The MaxBit is sold online by Walmart.com, in Ace Hardware stores, Forestry Suppliers, and at TheGrommet.com, an online retailer owned by Ace and used as a launchpad for products that can be sold by partners in a variety of ways. Dr. Morgan still hasn’t licensed The MaxBit, although she exports to three international markets, Canada, Australia, and Israel. Hammacher Schlemmer, Ace and others are retail options for her customers who can also buy direct from www.themaxbit.com, where Dr. Morgan says 60% of her sales occur.
2020 has been an interesting year for Dr. Morgan, as it has for most of us. She worked out a deal with Multicraft Corporation in December 2019 for office and industrial shipping space. That turned out to be fortuitous when COVID-19 hit, as the businesses were considered essential. She was able to work within social-distancing guidelines from her shipping office instead of trying to manage things from home.
She says sales of The MaxBit “are not far off the mark” of a year-ago sales because a lot of customers have been working from home—and paying some extra attention to their gardens. The challenges have been the closure of gardening centers and the cancellation of regional trade shows where she has generated sales in past years.
Dr. Morgan said that Mississippi’s entrepreneur resources, such as the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, have been invaluable.
And, she says, she can’t underestimate the value of Innovate Mississippi’s support. Innovate awarded Morgan an investment loan in 2017 via the Mississippi Seed Fund and helped her find a manufacturer. Now she’s exporting products and exploring Asia and South American markets.
“I know there was a purpose and a plan. I’ve been able to learn all the different aspects of what it takes,” Dr. Morgan said. “My faith in God, the blessings of the Lord—and hard work pay off. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s tough training, but it feels great when you cross the finish line.”
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